3 Thoughts on 'How Change Happens'

Image: Oxfam.

Image: Oxfam.

Duncan Green (of Oxfam, Cardiff University, and the excellent From Poverty to Power blog) released a public draft of his latest book today, entitled "How Change Happens."  He's eager to read as many reviews of the book as possible before it's published next year, and I'm happy to oblige.  Here's a blurb from the book proposal:

Human society is full of would-be ‘change agents’, a restless mix of campaigners, organizers and development workers, both individuals and organizations, set on transforming the world. They want to improve public services, reform laws and regulations, guarantee human rights, achieve greater recognition for any number of issues or simply be treated with respect.  Striking then, that universities have no Department of Change Studies, to which social activists can turn for advice and inspiration. Instead, scholarly discussions of change are fragmented with few conversations crossing disciplinary boundaries, or making it onto the radars of those actively seeking change.  This book brings together the latest research from a range of academic disciplines and the evolving practical understanding of activists [...] it tests ideas on How Change Happens and sets out the latest thinking on what works to achieve progressive change.’

The book is a worthy read, especially for those working in international development, Green's field of expertise and the focus of this book.  In fact, this book might have been called "How International Development Happens."  While the book is broad enough to encompass change broadly defined, in practice this book is most helpful for those in development working on designing, implementing, or evaluating development work.  With that in mind, here are three thoughts on this impressive early draft:

  1. 'Change is about power.' Green's central theme (evident in his early publications and even the name of his blog) is that power is at the root of development by determining how resources or policies are controlled.  This may seem obvious, but as Green points out, too often development is viewed through an economic lens, at the expense of understanding the political levers of power and change.  He teaches us that there are multiple sources of power.  Most common is 'visible' power (politics, laws, violence), but equally important is 'hidden' power (lobbyists, corporate influence, old boys networks) and 'invisible' power (those norms or expectations that reinforce the status quo).  An astute observation, though one lacking a practical implication.  Green implores us to conduct power analyses before embarking on development work, but identifying the players, how they relate to each other, and who or what they are influenced by may take years of research, and even then, the landscape is constantly changing.  
  2. 'Dancing with complex systems.'  Recognizing the limitation of traditional power analyses, Green makes perhaps the most convincing argument when calling for continued investigation of development feedbacks: "The purpose of initial study is to enable us to place our bets intelligently. The crucial decisions come after that: how we continue to 'study' during the course of our efforts, and adjust according to our ongoing learning."  My experience in development suggests the traditional development project model is severely lacking in its ability to respond to results and adapt accordingly.  Typically an outline of the project is developed by a donor organization under a linear theory of change (if "a" then "b"), who awards the project to an implementing organization that does little to monitor or question the assumptions or results of the theory.  A couple years ago I was associated with a WASH (water supply, sanitation, and hygiene) project that was linear in its assumptions (if we install pumps, water supply will increase; if water supply increases health will improve).  A->B->C.  The project didn't have a mechanism to analyze if our efforts on A were really leading to C, so my friend and colleague designed a research project to address the problem.  The proposal went nowhere, mostly because it wasn't part of the "Scope of Work" that was created years earlier.  Certainly there is ample research to suggest that water pumps can lead to improvements in health, but whether or not they actually do is dependent on a variety of factors that too often receive little study.  Green's most convincing argument, in my view, is that "dancing with complex systems is like navigating through traffic – success depends on fast feedback to detect new situations and having the ability to respond quickly."
  3. Courts as Change Agents.  As a legal scholar I was interested to read Green's take on the role that legal systems play in promoting or preventing change.   This is a challenging topic to address because every country will have unique constitutional arrangements and the rule of law will be applied and enforced unevenly to varying degrees.  Green cites India's judicially activist Supreme Court as the best example of a hyperactive legal system promoting development, but fails to address the drawbacks of activist courts (that they might just as easily be active in deterring development, for example).  India's Supreme Court might be promoting social justice from the bench because the legislature and government are inept, but in doing so the Court relinquishes its ability to interpret the law as an apolitical arbiter.  Green makes the case that courts and the law matter and can be a source of change, but places too much emphasis on their potential as activists for change.  I would argue that a restrained but just and transparent legal system might be the change worth seeking in the first place.

"How Change Happens" is nothing if not ambitious, and proposes a theory of change that is grounded in humility and a constant desire to know more about development and how it can be achieved, even if the results are inconvenient.  In a development field dominated by linear thinking and light on research, Green's insistence that we ask tough questions and reevaluate our assumptions is a welcome contribution.